Let us start with the praise: the cinematography and stuntwork in particular is spectacular. I mean even given how good the last two seasons have been, this story just looks GORGEOUS. Sure, it helps when you get to use the actual Globe Theatre, but I'm referring to everything seen on-screen. Even the matte shots are just stunningly good. If the rest of the season can keep up this visual level, my eyes my explode from sheer delight.
I thought David Tennant really nailed the part right on the head in this one. He was by turns funny and dramatic, serious and whimsical, callous and empathetic, fanboy and hitman, human and alien. Whereas he got a little silly in bits of Smith and Jones, he was just spot-on here.
Freema was a nice change and handled many of her scenes very well, and I look forward to more from her -- but it's still too soon to judge exactly how she's going to work out. Very promising, and RTD wasn't lying when he said she wouldn't be "Rose Lite," but you know I'm almost ready for another male companion on board ... how about someone significantly older?
I should mention that I met Gareth Roberts through the Manopticon crew many years ago and we hit it off very well back then, though we haven't kept in touch -- so feel free to take my review of his script with a grain of salt if you like, but I mostly loved it, particularly the dialogue. There was perhaps a bit more expository dialogue than most of these stories get, but there was more back-continuity to refer to. This could be worrisome -- the new series of Doctor Who has spent more of its time looking forward than back, and I want that to continue because it seems to help the mass appeal -- but if they're only going to be so referential only once in a while I certainly won't mind.
The two things I do take exception with were the stylised performances of the Witches/Carrionites, and the Master of the Revels. Having been unimpressed with director Charles Palmer's direction of Smith & Jones, I'm inclined to blame him more than anyone else for the simply dreadful campiness of the witches. I'll come back to the Master (no not THAT Master) later.
I understand what they were trying to do -- make the witches very much like the stereotypes we all know from childhood of what witches were like -- but it was laid on as thick as Tammy Faye Bakker's makeup, allowing no room for further exaggeration in history. Even small children would find their cackling, rhyming, Monty-Python- Pepperpots voices grating and unbelievable and completely over the top. Was the second unit directory Mary Whitehouse herself? I ask because nobody else could take the menace out of those creatures and render them comically ineffective quite like that harpy do-gooder. The scene in which Doomfinger hysterically confronts the Doctor and company when they visit Peter Street is one of the biggest mismatches of acting since Ralph Richardson had to act alongside Andie MacDowell. "Fan quality" doesn't even begin to describe how bad the Carrionites were on screen. "Porn acting" might just cover it.
The other problem with this story has to do with the dramatically shorter 45-minute format. Important characters, such as The Master of the Revels, are reduced to "pop on and die." This is not the first time this has happened, but it's the most obvious -- I was left scratching my head as to how Martha knew the Master's name was Mr Lynley (answer, after reviewing the episode again -- oops! continuity error ahoy!). Furthermore, what purpose does Mr Lynley serve (other than "expendable extra")? Why is he so set against Shakespeare? What's up with the permits -- and script approval?? These are just some of the things neither Roberts nor Davies bother to answer because there's simply NO TIME to delve into the character, but what they forget is that this also means there's no time for us to CARE about him or his death. He's a prop used almost solely to show off the "death by drowning on dry land" trick. It's unfair to the performer and in service to the story that he gets such short shrift.
I can live with the Doctor's rather feeble explanation of "magic." I can stand discovering that Jor-El's "Phantom Zone" is full of big- nosed old biddies who use words for physics (hey, I bought into "bloc transfer computation," didn't I?). I can even deal with a bisexual Shakespeare and gratuitous -- and I do mean GRATUITOUS -- Harry Potter references. It's just a shame that I have to.
When you've got such a marvelous story, such wonderful actors, such beautiful dialogue, such gorgeous location and model work and so rich a backdrop, you should linger just a bit more over it. Think of how much better The Shakespeare Code would have been as a two-parter: we could have fleshed out Lillith, her suitor, Lynley, the King's Men actors, even Queen Elisabeth! And before you complain that I must be one of those old-school fuddy-duddies who thinks everything should be a six-parter at least, I should point out that this is only the second time in this new series that I've wished for a one-part story to be a two-parter (the other was "Rose," which desperately needed more "there" there).
Overall, The Shakespeare Code is solid entertainment with only minor annoyances to those of us who take it seriously, and I'm sure it will do well in the season poll for its looks, cast and style. To me, sadly, it's tantilizingly close to perfect, but just ruined by ham and cheese -- oddly enough, not on the stage!